No 67 October 2005.5
Nigeria : Pentecostal Churches,God's pennies
They organize hundreds of thousands of faithful. At the head of enterprises, universities, T.V. channels, their political and ideological weight is decisive.
Under the dome of the “Chapel of Winners” more than fifty thousand people in their Sunday best dance at the sound of three hundred loudspeakers. Giant screens allow not loosing anything of the preacher’s sermon. At the center of the vast hall, on a raised stage decorated with white flowers, Pastor David Oyedepo, impeccably dressed in a light beige suit, talks to the vibrant crowd. Posters herald: “2005 - the turning point; the time of my deliverance has come”. The faithful forget their ills with promises of better to-morrows: “Aids, cancers are cured with the power of the Resurrection! You escape the claws of witches!” the pastor says. On small notebooks regular faithful take notes, punctuating his words.
The ceremony estimates this ideal so much desired by Nigerians: 80% subsist with less than one dollar a day. In a chaotic world the “Chapel of Winners”, a Pentecostal Church, counts on organization. Dozens of immaculate buses with a red inscription “the Country of Canaan” (one of the Chapel names) are parked near the hall. Each week some five hundred vehicles are at the disposal of the faithful of the “Chapel of winners”. Their tidy aspect is in sharp contrast to the wrecks that are used for the common transport in the country. “What struck me when I first came here”, says John Bede Anthonio, “is orderliness.” This architect has become one of the pillars of this institution.
In 1998 the “Chapel of Winners” gathered six thousand faithful each Sunday at Ota, some sixty kilometers from Lagos. Seven years later there are tens of thousands who make the weekly travel. Since its foundation in Nigeria in 1970 it spread to thirty-six countries in Africa, to London and as far as Jamaica. Implanted in the whole country of Nigeria Pentecostal Churches recruit at all social levels. Either they are daughters of American Churches or created in the country, they multiply and it is difficult to evaluate the number of their followers in a country of at least fifty million Christians and as many Muslims.
Considering the bankruptcy of the State, their growth is exponential. Sickness, unemployment, poverty, marital problems: no evil escapes the pastor’s competence. In Nigeria, as in other African countries, the explosion of the Pentecostal movement is linked to the despair of a mostly young population, directly struck by aids, alarming unemployment, even for diploma holders, while ruined public universities often give only devalued certificates. Young people are a privileged target of the Pentecostal Churches. As those churches develop, they can offer work in their midst or through their networks. Students go to computer rooms next to chapels. Some are offered work by influential members already in the economic circuit. “I know of a bank manager who hired exclusively young people of his church”, says a Nigerian. “After you get your diploma, the Church helps you find some work or sometimes hires you”, explains Kevin, 21 years old. For instance, one of his friends received a recommendation for a job with the air company Virgin Atlantics. Asked about the reasons for such enthusiasm, he answers by another question: “Where can you find hope here but in the Churches?” Some faithful become apprentice pastors with the hope of founding their own Church, just as one creates one’s business.
Even on a foundation of poverty evangelization is a profitable business. The monthly tithe claimed by Churches represents 10% of the salary. Members are carefully selected. For instance at Lagos a close network of three thousand communities keeps the “Chapel of Winners” in contact with its faithful. All Churches keep the same directive: gifts are totally voluntary. In fact some kind of excommunication punishes the bad contributor: “Not to pay is to fool God, one is no longer a member of the Church, the pastor can refuse to attend the funeral of family members”, explains a researcher, specialist of religions. An Ivory Coast man after attending a Pentecostal ceremony in Lagos is amazed: “I had scarcely arrived that an official came to me to speak to me about tithing, necessary according to him if I wanted to attend the high mass the following Sunday.”
If the Church momentarily grows poorer, it is to get richer later on, as for an investment. In the Pentecostal cult, financial success is seen as a blessing from God as can be seen from the names given to their Churches: “Chapel of Winners”, “Church of Champions”, “Church of Conquerors”. Hauwa Audu is a broker and a Muslim converted to Christianity. It is a dream that led her to the “Chapel of Winners”: in 1999, she saw herself in a dream give 5000 nairas to the “Country of Canaan”. She attributed her dazzling success in business to this gesture: “You also find management principles of business in the sermons of the pastor”, she says straightforwardly. “God has put men on earth for them to dominate. If you know the principles, you will get results.” This business lady helps the Church in investments on the Stock Exchange; she admits that the “Country of Canaan” is also a good place to cultivate one’s networks. The place of this pharaonic cult is situated next to a brand new university with an elaborate architecture: since 2002, two billion nairas (next to 15 million dollars) have been invested each year “without external help”, says Rector Nathaniel Yemi. The establishment accommodates 4300 students, specialized in the business and engineering of petrol, in mechanics and chemistry. The Church gets its inspiration from the evangelical university Oral Roberts in the United States, where “the teaching is based on Christian principles.” Exchanges of students and professors take place between the two establishments. The rector’s project is based on the “concept of the whole man, formed spiritually, academically and physically”.
Miracle as business
According to pastor Oyedepo the prosperity of the Pentecostal movement in Nigeria, of all churches as a whole, has already been instrumental in building five universities. To consolidate their influence many Churches, like the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG), recognized as the most powerful in Nigeria, are also considering opening TV networks. In an ever more competitive environment, confraternities compete with one another with edifying testimonies to prove their efficiency. It is in the middle of the night that miracles occur: this is their main selling argument. Each first Friday of the month, the Synagogue, a Church founded in Nigeria some ten years ago, attracts thousands of faithful. The building was built two years ago at Ikotun, a popular district of Lagos, the ancient building having proved too small. Today Swiss, Nigerians from the whole country, Botswanese, Ghanaians, South-Africans and a few French come to get the miraculous cure.
Aligned in a row, the sick are identified on a card where are written the name, age, nationality and the ills that they are afflicted with: attack from the devil, family problem, bad breath, weak organ, depression, stomach cancer… Around one o’clock in the morning, junior pastors, African and European pupils of the prophet, make their appearance. At their contact, “patients” fall on their knees, vomit or spit. The pastors lay hands on foreheads while screaming “Out, out!” Trances turn into epilepsy at the appearance of prophet T.B. Joshua, a forty-year-old with the looks of a crooner. At his contact, the sick fall on one another. In the midst of the aisle sweating cameramen are filming cures at breathtaking speed. Commercialized video cassettes will attract the curious and convince the non-believer. Since 1995 all performances of T.B. Joshua have been filmed. A hall in the synagogue is filled with them.
“Miraculous” scenes would be anecdotal were it that it would attract but a few thousands faithful. But in March the Synagogue, images backing this up, filled the national stadium in Botswana. The RCCG announces with great publicity the visits of evangelical pastors, like the one of the American evangelist Benny Hinn for a cure crusade. The Church promises an “explosion of miracles”. On this occasion it expects the visit of distinguished guests such as the Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo and the leader of the Anglican Church, Reverend Peter Akinola. Like the other conventional Churches, the Anglican Church notes the power of attraction of Pentecostal cults that drain a part of their own faithful, even if in fact many Christians go to both cults, conventional and Pentecostal.
Just like religious authorities, politicians have perceived the ever growing influence of Pentecostal Churches on populations. For instance people have reinforced Olusegun Obsanjo at the start of his first mandate in 1999. This Baptist, from the Southern Yoruba tribe, is seen as the herald of a Christian revenge in a country long governed by the military from the North. The Pentecostal movement, “extreme part of Christianity” according to the expression of a researcher, is ready to fight Islam especially when the latter hardens its position. It is the case in Nigeria where in the last few years twelve Northern States have adopted the sharia. Not very visible in the South of the country, its capacity to stir up divisions is obvious in places of tension between Christians and Muslims. At the time of deadly inter-religious confrontations at Jos, in the Plateau State (in the centre of the country) in May 2004, it was mostly Pentecostal buildings that were set on fire; militants of Christian groups were in great majority Pentecostal.
Pentecostal Churches rule over the private lives of their faithful, but they also have a calling to play a role in public life. This growing influence follows from their proselytism and the mission that, according to them, is assigned to them to take part in the development of Africa. “Our intention is to spread Evangelical values”, explains pastor Oyedepo. “We are already in the education sector. Soon we shall establish hospitals and orphanages.” The rector of the University of the “Chapel of Winners” adds: “Our main objective is to train a generation of leaders who will create the changes that Africa needs”.
Michel Fortin, M.Afr.
N.B. Text taken from an article of Virginie Gomez in the Magazine Alternatives Internationales.
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